Whether you have seen Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly countless times or have never seen it, you won’t want to miss this production at Lyric Opera of Chicago. October 30th is the last of the five performances with South African soprano Amanda Echalaz as Cio-Cio-San and American tenor James Valenti as Pinkerton (both Lyric debuts). However, there are six more performances in January with American soprano—and Lyric favorite—Patricia Racette as the ill-fated heroine, opposite the Pinkerton of Italian tenor Stefano Secco (debut). The remaining cast members, who sing all performances, are MaryAnn McCormick as Suzuki, Christopher Purves (debut) as Sharpless, and David Cangelosi as Goro. The conductor is Marco Armiliato (debut). Michael Black is chorus master.
Attending the opera at this time, we participated a bit in National Opera Week, which celebrates the vitality of opera in America as a contemporary cultural expression. It was created by Opera America and the annual event takes place this year from October 25 through November 3 and to observe it, Lyric Opera of Chicago has embarked on a special social media campaign. See below for more details.
Madama Butterfly is performed in Italian with projected English titles translation. The music is by Giacomo Puccini, and libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, from a short story by John Luther Long and the play by David Belasco. It was first performed on February 17, 1904 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. It was not well received until after the role of Pinkerton was altered to demonstrate remorse regarding his treatment of Cio-Cio-San. Revised and performed a few months later it received rave review and has remained one of the most popular operas. Madama Butterfly made its first appearance at Lyric in 1955 with Maria Callas portraying Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) in the only staged performances of the role that she ever sang. This Madama Butterfly production was first seen at Houston Grand Opera in 2010, when Lyric’s current general director, AnthonyFreud, held that position with the company.
In addition, LOC’s Website states: “The more popular the opera, the more challenging it is to create a new production that ratifies the opera’s popularity and at the same time invites the audience to think about it as if seeing it for the first time,” says Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director. “I commissioned this production in Houston; the director Michael Grandage is one of the most successful, distinguished, award-winning directors of our time. What I love about this production is that it really is faithful to Puccini’s characters and story, and brings them to life in a very detailed way in a rather spare, beautiful, aesthetically very Japanese world.” This new-to-Chicago production also features sets and costumes by Christopher Oram and lighting by Neil Austin.
We first meet Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton as they happily anticipate their wedding. Cio-Cio-San reveals that she wants to follow the religion and customs of her husband-to-be, that she has visited the mission but he should not tell her family yet. But as the ceremony is about to begin, Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, reveals her secret and turns her family against her. Even as we see the traditional Japanese ceremony that was arranged by marriage-broker Goro (tenor David Cangelosi) take place in the presence of the American consul Sharpless (baritone Christopher Purves, debut), and Cio-Cio-San does marry U. S. Navy Lt. B. F. Pinkerton, the music is telling us “watch out-danger ahead”. Pinkerton confides to Sharpless that he views his marriage as he views his house lease, revocable each year and that he looks forward to the day he can marry a real American bride. He soon departs for America, promising to return “when the robins are nesting.” Three years pass, with Cio-Cio-San – along with her maid Suzuki (mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick) and her little son – waiting for Pinkerton to come back. When Pinkerton arrives and makes known his wish to take his son to America with his “real” American wife Kate (Laura Wilde, debut) Cio-Cio-San makes a choice in keeping with her father’s philosophy that an honorable death is preferable to a life without honor.
The set is exquisite in its stark simplicity with clever use of a large screen and two levels on the stage. Several of the scenes were so visually arresting that I almost gasped. The casting was perfect. Each character looked their part, sang perfectly and the acting was gripping. Tye Oren Pauley playing “Sorrow”, Butterfly’s child, was very convincing in his role. The orchestra under the baton of Marco Armiliato shone, not only as beautiful accompaniment for the heart wrenching solos, duets and trios during the opera but there was a long stretch when the orchestra played on its own, depicting the passage of time as Cio Cio San waits for Pinkerton to make his way up the hill from the ship.
Knowing the story and the music is no protection against shedding a tear in this very moving production in which we truly feel the agony of both protagonists. As I was leaving a charming man behind me commented, “Over and over Cio Cio San and Mimi have to die, every time you see them”. But what would opera be without them?
Be sure to arrive in time for the pre-opera lecture always one hour before performance time.
Lyric Opera of Chicago
20 N Upper Wacker Dr Chicago, IL 60606
Photos: Dan Rest for Lyric Opera of Chicago
National Opera Week: Beginning October 25, Lyric is showcasing its artists, administrators, and audience members of all ages who participate in its wide-ranging programs—both at the opera house and in the community—by sharing photos on Facebook, Twitter and Lyric's blog, “Lyric Lately,” with the theme, “A Week in the Life of Lyric Opera.”
Lyric stars, chorus, orchestra musicians, and staff are posing with National Opera Week signs whenever inspiration strikes. And opera lovers around the world are encouraged to participate, too—a printable version of the sign is available for download on Lyric’s blog—by posting photos on their personal social networks, and tagging with the official National Opera Week hashtag, #operaweek.
Lyric is asking its fans to be photographed with a National Opera Week sign while listening to recordings, working out, singing in a community chorus, playing an instrument—whatever shows the role that opera plays in their lives. They then can post their photos to their own social media accounts throughout the week, and they can simply tag Lyric Opera and use #operaweek to be included.
See more at: Lyric Website